Forgiveness, Twenty-Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time (A), September 11, 2005

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
September 11, 2005
Sir 27:30-28:7; Rom 14:7-9; Mt 18:21-35

1) If someone hurts us, we think it’s magnanimous and generous when we give them a second chance. But what if they do it again? Do we readily give them a third chance? And, if we go that extra mile, give them that third chance and they do it again, do we give them a fourth?

2) In today’s Gospel, St. Peter asks Christ, “If my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him?” He volunteers a figure astronomical by our standards today. “Seven times?,” he says, which would be our equivalent of giving someone an eighth chance. Jesus, taking advantage of the symbolic significance of the number seven in Hebrew, which symbolizes perfection, responds that Peter must forgive not just seven times, but seventy-seven times. If taken literally he would have to give someone a “seventy-eighth chance.” But in Hebrew, the expression Jesus uses means “infinitely.” He says Peter must forgive every time a brother or sister wrongs him. And what Jesus says to Peter, he also says to us. We, too, must never refuse forgiveness to anyone who has wronged us — even and especially those who have really wounded us deeply. We must forgive fathers and mothers who have hurt us when we were younger, husbands and wives who have betrayed us, friends who have deceived us, priests or nuns who have harmed us, assailants who have attacked us, and even — on this fourth anniversary of 9/11 — terrorists who have mercilessly killed those closest to us.

3) Jesus tells us why we must do this by means of the parable he gives us. He mentions two people who need to have their debts cancelled. The first owes 10,000 talents. A talent was 6,000 days wages. Therefore, this person owed 60,000,000 days of work. (If a person made minimum wage today, $5.15, that would mean he would owe $2.48 billion). Knowing that he and his whole family would be thrown into prison, he went in to the Master and begged for time to pay back that unpayable sum. The Master, moved with compassion, cancelled the debt in its entirety. The debtor had essentially received his life back. But he went out and met a man who owed him 100 denarii, or 100 days wages. (If a person was making minimum wage, this would be in today’s dollars about $4,120, which could easily be repaid over the course of a few months). But when he fell to his knees and begged for time to repay the debt, the one who had been forgiven the $2.5 billion had no mercy at all. We know what happened when the servants of the Master told their boss. He revoked his mercy and threw the one who owed him into prison.

4) The relevance to the parable to us is that we owe God far more than $2.5 billion. We’re always debtors, not creditors, in the forgiveness department. God the Father did not write off our debt, but sent his Son to pay for the debt with his own body and blood on the Cross. Our sins — even every single venial sin — have incurred an infinite debt that Christ needed to pay. Since we have received his forgiveness in baptism and in the sacrament of reconciliation, we are called to go out likewise and forgive others their much smaller debts to us, because nothing they could do to us — even if they were to torture us or kill those closest to us — amounts to what we’ve done to the Son of God made man through our sins. This is a very important point for us to get. Very often we can think our sins are light matter. “So I say a few swears,” we can say to ourselves, “that’s not a big deal.” Or we can have very little compunction if we miss Mass on a Sunday or Holy Day of Olibation, or fail to be charitable, or consent to some impure thoughts, or be dishonest on our taxes. But every sin we’ve committed — even being impatient with others — makes us murderers of the Son of God, because Jesus had to DIE to forgive even our least VENIAL sin. This is a hard truth to bear, and I know there will be someone in this Church right now who will think that I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. That’s how horrible our sins are. That’s where they led. If we stopped there, it would be hard for us not to feel miserable as a result. But God loved us so much that he counted it a bargain to send his son to die in payment of the debts we incurred by our sins. That’s the first lesson from today’s Gospel.

5) The second lesson is that God’s mercy toward us — which is infinite and everlasting — can be revoked. In the parable, the Master who had written off the $2.5 billion debt, revoked it when he saw the one he had forgiven refuse similar mercy to the person who owed him. God makes this point emphatically throughout Sacred Scripture:

a. In today’s first reading, the Lord tells us through Ben Sirach: “Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray. Does anyone harbor anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? If one has no mercy toward another like himself, can he then seek pardon for his own sins?”

b. When Jesus taught us to pray the Our Father, he put seven petitions on our lips, but only one had a condition attached to it. We pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we have forgiven those who have trespassed (sinned) against us.” We need already to have forgiven and to have the intention to continue to forgive. Jesus told us this much right after he taught us the Our Father. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mt 6:14-15).

c. After giving us the parable in today’s Gospel, Jesus vigorously made the same point: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you — treat us like the first debtor in the parable — unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

d. And none of us should miss the consequence if God revokes his forgiveness. If he does so, we will go to Hell, because unless he forgives us our sins, our sins will prevent us from getting to Heaven. I can add, however, that if we fail to forgive others, however, we will not have to wait until we die to go to Hell, because we’ll already be experiencing a hell on earth. The past pains due to others’ sins against us will always remain in the present, raw and heavy, dragging us down by their weight. Jesus gives us the command to forgive others not just so that we might imitate his merciful love, and not even so that we won’t revoke it by our failure to be merciful to others, but so that we might experience the liberation and joy mercy brings the giver.

6) It’s always important us to be very practical in applying any Gospel to our lives. Today I’d like to present four ways Christ is calling us to live out the lessons he is teaching us in this parable. There are two parts to today’s Gospel: asking for and receiving the Lord’s forgiveness, and sharing that forgiveness with others — and these tips will refer to both.

a. First, in order for us to be merciful to others, we need to recognize that we, like them, are in need of mercy, that we, like them, are in fact debtors because of our sins. The more we’re aware of our own need for forgiveness from God and the more we receive it, the easier it should be to extend that gift toward others. That’s why it’s crucially important that we examine our consciences daily and go to confession frequently. When we recognize that even our “smallest” sins incur an infinite debt that Jesus had to pay with his own blood, then we want to root out those sins out. Sorrow for our sins, and a healthy self-love, move us to go, like the debtors in the Gospel, to the Divine Creditor and drop to our knees, begging for his mercy.

We do this, of course, when we fall to our knees in the Confessional. Jesus created two sacraments we can receive over-and-over again because he knew we’d need them. Like a loving parent who out of love changes a child’s diaper and then feeds the child, so the Lord cleans us and feeds us in these two sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist. You’ll hear me preach about these two sacraments a lot, because these, with prayer, are the PRINCIPLE MEANS by which God wants to make us holy. Many people today underappreciate the great sacrament of the Eucharist, but many more — including those who appreciate the Mass — undervalue the great gift of the Sacrament of Confession.

My hope here among you is that within a short period of time, I will be spending far more time in the confessional than I do in the sanctuary celebrating Mass. I hope in fact to spend more time in the confessional than doing anything else over the course of the entire week. The patron saint of parish priests, St. Jean Marie Vianney, whose stained glass window is in our sanctuary, used to spend 18 hours a day hearing confession. He was a “prisoner,” even a “martyr” of the confessional, but spent the time there so that the Good Shepherd could tend to each of his sheep. I hope to do the same here. I would love you to kill me in that box, where the Master will remit your debts.

Over my first few weeks as a priest here, I recognized that more people were coming to confession in Portuguese from Immaculate Conception Church than from this parish. I started to ask around why St. Anthony Parishioners don’t come in great numbers. Some people said because they find coming to confession on Saturday afternoon inconvenient. So I added confessions after the daily Masses and on Friday night — and I’ll be happy to add more when we the need becomes greater. Others said that the confessionals really didn’t allow for anonymity, so, with the help of the talented women who sew on Tuesday afternoons, we’ve made and installed opaque shades in all the confessionals, so that the penitent can maintain anonymity — or lift and hang the shade if he or she wants to go face-to-face. Others said that they’re embarrassed to go here because they’re hard of hearing and therefore need to speak so loudly in the confessional that other people can hear their sins. So I spent two hours yesterday installing a sound system in the confessionals to pipe in Gregorian chants while confessions are being heard so that no one would ever again have this concern. I’ll happily do whatever it takes to remove any good reason you would have for not wanting to take advantage of the gift of the sacrament. Please come!

Sometimes people ask me how often a faithful Catholic should go to confession. We all know that every Catholic needs to go at least once a year, but we should never make the MINIMUM our MAXIMUM. I say that we should go to confession at least once a month — and obviously as soon as possible whenever we’ve committed a serious sin. If you’re wondering whether I practice what I preach with respect to this, I can humbly say that I do. I go to confession every Tuesday and have gone at least once a week for many years. And I can tell you it has made a huge difference in my life as, together with the help of the Holy Spirit, I can work on rooting out particular sins and growing in grace. It also has made me more and more grateful for the love of the Lord, who has forgiven my entire debt. Finally, it has made me more merciful and patient with others, as I experience each week the Lord’s mercy and patience with me.

b. The second practical tip relates to our mercy with others. Sometimes we hesitate to forgive others because we think it implies that we don’t consider what they’ve done any longer to be wrong. But this is a false and harmful understanding of forgiveness. When we forgive another, it does not mean that we approve of the wrong they’ve done or won’t try to bring a malefactor to justice if they’ve done something criminal. Mercy is not opposed to justice and to forgive does not mean to be weak and “soft on crime.” On the contrary, a true spirit of forgiveness involves a genuine horror for the sinful quality of the harm sins do and the deep desire to right the wrong and deter others from committing similar wrongs. It involves hating the sin but loving the sinner. Sometimes our greatest mercy toward another is, in a spirit of charity and not vindictiveness, to help them to see the error of their deeds and repent through a just punishment.

c. The third tip is to recall that Jesus never said, “Forgive and forget.” So many people have told me over the years that they can’t forgive because they can never forget the pain from the harm done by others. In response I’ve asked them, “Well, who says that you have to forget what they’ve done?,” and they’ve replied, in one way or another, “Didn’t Jesus?” No! Jesus NEVER said “forgive and forget,” because the simple fact of the matter is that when another deeply hurts us, there’s no way we could ever forget that. If you lost a loved one in the terrorist attacks four years ago today, do you think you could ever forget the way your loved one died? Forgiveness is not some type of psychological or emotional amnesia. It’s something altogether different. That leads us to the fourth and last practical point:

d. Forgiveness means changing the present significance of a past event, from one that causes pain to one that leads to mercy and love. Imagine your best friend deeply betrays you and you find it difficult even to think about the person, not to mention be in the other’s presence. What would forgiveness look like in that circumstance? It comes up very often in the confessional. I always ask a person struggling to forgive to pray something like this, “Dear Lord, please be merciful to that person and be merciful to me too.” What happens? Whenever we do this, we’re changing the present meaning of the person’s past actions and presence from something that opens up the pains of the wounds to something that causes us to pray for mercy for that person and for us too. And if we can convert all of these past pains into present opportunities to pray for God’s mercy, then we have a chance to become deeply holy, because there are always plenty of people to forgive. Whenever we come into their presence, if we’re led to pray for them and for ourselves, then instead of doing us harm, they will do us great good. That’s what forgiveness really is. This weekend Jesus is calling us to recall those whom we need to forgive and to extend toward them the same offer of mercy he extends toward us.

7) During the celebration of the first Mass, Jesus gave us his “new commandment,” to “love others as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34; 15:12). Jesus’ love for us is always merciful, and our love for others must likewise always be clement. As he was dying to pay the debt for our sins, after his back had been shredded at the flagellation, after his head had been crowned with thorns, and the Roman soldiers were about to hammer his arms to the wood of the Cross, Jesus cried out not in pain but in mercy: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!” (Lk 23:34). The “them” and the “they” he was referring to were not just the Roman Soldiers who clearly knew how to crucify someone, but to all of us who when we sin really do not have a clue about how they crucify and kill our Savior. There is a similar consequential ignorance when we sin against others and others sin against us. Today Jesus is asking us to make his words our own, to make his love our own, to make his mercy our own — by our receiving it from him and by our sharing that forgiveness lavishly with others. Through our reception of the Eucharist, the body and blood “given… and shed for [us] and for all so that sins may be forgiven,” may the Lord strengthen us to become his disciples not just in name but in fact.